June 6, 2014. Before last week, Cathy Smith had never met John “Pete” Absher. She was unaware that he was born and raised in Ashe County, enjoyed bluegrass music or had his own Christmas tree farm. She did not know that he was a father of two, loved to travel or even that he was approaching his 87th birthday. All she knew was that John was a veteran who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. For Cathy, that was all she needed to know.
Cathy was raised on a farm in a small cotton mill town right outside of Greensboro. While growing up, she performed a variety of farm chores, developed a love for horses and became a fourth generation quilter. After moving to the mountains to study at Appalachian State University, Cathy worked as a horeseback riding instructor at both Lees-McRae College at Appalachian State University for 30 years. In 2008, after her two boys made it through college, she decided that it was time to hang up her spurs professionally and start a new career in healthcare.
As the Quality Analyst for Medical Records at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, Cathy oversees the accuracy of all patient records at Watauga Medical Center and Cannon Memorial Hospital. Cathy has remained an avid quilter and can be found unwinding from a busy day at work at her sewing machine in her home in Valle Crucis.
“Quilting is like cutting firewood,” said Smith with a grin. “It warms you in so many ways.”
This year, Cathy decided to participate in the Quilts of Valor (QOV) program. Established in 2003, its mission is to cover service members and veterans touched by war with comforting and healing quilts. Since its inception, nearly 100,000 quilts have been made and presented to these service members.
“When you think about the freedom that we as Americans enjoy, I think it is important to stop and thank the good Lord above and our troops for their service,” said Smith. “The Quilts of Valor program allows quilters like me an opportunity to express our gratitude.”
Cathy’s 2014 New Year’s Resolution goal was to create a quilt in memory of her grandfather, a World War II veteran. Not knowing who the quilt recipient would be actually added to her excitement.
As any good seamstress will tell you, the first step in constructing a good quilt involves gathering the right fabric.
After conducting a careful search, she was overjoyed to discover a red, white and blue pattern called A New Beginning.
“I knew I was on the right track when I found that fabric,” smiled Smith. “For so many service members, the Quilt of Valor serves as a shield from nightmares and a symbol of pride. I wanted the recipient of this quilt to feel that they can have hope and A New Beginning.”
From start to finish, it took Cathy two months to put the final touches on her Quilt of Valor. Once complete, she began asking her ARHS colleagues if they knew of any current patients who had served in the military. Her inquiry led her to John “Pete” Absher at the Cancer Center.
When John turned 18, the Army drafted him into World War II. After the war, he went on to serve in the military for 20 years before retiring as a Master Sergeant in 1966. Shortly after his retirement, John was hired by Ashe County High School to instruct the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program. He taught at the high school for three and a half years before retiring for good. On occasion, some of his former students still affectionately refer to him as “Sarge” when they see him around town.
Unfortunately, John’s carefree retirement years were cut short earlier this year when he was diagnosed with stage 4 Esophageal Cancer. After a consult at Ashe Memorial Hospital, John was referred to Seby B. Jones Regional Cancer Center in April, where he began chemotherapy treatments.
“Things were certainly starting to stack up against me,” said John while gazing out the window of the Cancer Center. “Looking back, I still find it hard to believe, that while I was coming to grips with the toughest war I’d ever been drafted into, there was a guardian angel already looking out for me.”
John’s guardian angel came in the form of Cathy Smith. Armed with a heart full of compassion, a tender smile and her Quilt of Valor she made her way to the Cancer Center to honor her “unknown” solider.
Before meeting for the first time Cathy said, “I was as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs. I wasn’t sure what to say or how to say it. I just wanted him to feel loved and appreciated.”
The moment shared between the two was timeless. For just a moment, as the Quilt of Valor was being presented, John was able to forget about his cancer. The two hugged, traded tears and shared an unvoiced appreciation for each other that words could not give justice.
“I remember a time when being a serviceman was frowned upon,” said John. “Today, after all of these years, to be honored in this way feels like a dream too good to be true.”
The moment shared between the two strangers ended in a friendship. An uncommon friendship, woven together with fabric, service, respect and thanksgiving.
John still receives treatment at the Cancer Center and will likely for the remainder of his life. However, the retired solder does not complain. He holds his head high and on cool mountain evenings, John enjoys gazing at the stars in his rocking chair, under his quilt, his Quilt of Valor.